Haven’t we all had enough of the doom-mongers predicting the end of the EU? Of comparisons to the last days of the Roman Empire or – worse still – the violent break-up of Yugoslavia?
And yet it’s true that EU leaders are offering few ‘reasons to be cheerful’ these days. Throughout history, trade unions have grown used to doing battle to improve the welfare of working people: the eight-hour day, annual paid holidays, safer workplaces… and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has backed EU integration as a way of extending and protecting those rights. But today, on the back of economic crisis, austerity, lack of investment and the progressive dismantling of public services and social protection, two further challenges threaten the future of the EU and above all ‘Social Europe’.
The first is the refugee crisis. This is above all a humanitarian emergency. But it also threatens the principle of free movement. The future of the Schengen area and the EU itself is at stake. By mid-February, already more than 100,000 people had dared the journey to Europe by sea – 41% of them from Syria – 10 times more than in the same period in 2015. Over 400 have died or are missing at sea. Women and children made up 54% of these desperate migrants. Europe has a moral duty to help them.
History proves that integration – into society and employment – is the only way to tackle the challenges linked to migration, and to prevent criminality, marginalisation and social unrest. And yet February’s European Council conclusions on migration made no mention whatsoever of integration. They talked instead of tightening borders, “stemming flows” and enforcing returns. And the EU maintained this approach in its deplorable, and probably illegal, proposals for refugee-exchange with Turkey.
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There is a mass of evidence to prove that migrant workers make a major contribution to host country economies. And yet Europe has closed its doors to refugees. Reneging on its reputation as a place of refuge in previous conflicts, Europe has decided that the victims of war must live elsewhere. It is giving money to Turkey to keep refugees out of Europe, while at the same time criticising it for not opening its own borders. Greece is expected to save and house shipwrecked families, while its neighbours erect razor wire to keep them out. There is neither logic nor coherence in the actions of most EU leaders – only self-interest and fear of extremist reactions.
We don’t underestimate the effort and investment needed to run adequate reception and integration services. But this is the only acceptable and responsible course of action. Our trade union members are already committed to this task, working with employers’ organisations, through a network of contact points. Furthermore, EU economic rules must be relaxed to allow Member States that are suffering austerity to invest in services for refugees.
The European Commission has already confirmed that it will put forward proposals for revising the Dublin Regulation, which is incapable of responding to the current crisis. We will be pressing for Europe to adopt a genuine common asylum policy that respects refugees’ rights, with transparent application and relocation procedures making it easier for migrants to settle in the country where they have family ties, appropriate language skills or qualifications, and the best chance of integration.
Europe has 23 million unemployed people, but also 2 million unfilled vacancies. European countries with ageing populations need younger workers. The main source of unfair competition in the labour market is the lack of equal treatment and the exploitation of migrant workers by some employers.
The only way to make sure that everyone can find a decent job on a decent wage is to ensure full equal treatment: the same pay and conditions for the same job in the same place. This applies not only to refugees but also to mobile EU workers, especially when they are ‘posted’ from one country to another.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has repeatedly pledged to eliminate social dumping and guarantee equal treatment: in his election manifesto, his 2015 State of the Union address, and in the Commission’s 2016 Work Programme to mention just a few occasions. On 8 March the Commission published its proposals for revising the EU law covering posted workers, yet without full consultation with the employers and trade unions who are closest to the people it affects.
Maybe the intentions were good, but the Commission’s plan fails to respect the importance of collective agreements at all levels in securing equal treatment. It makes some progress in tackling abuses, but there is still a long way to go to ensure full protection for mobile workers in Europe.
Walls and fences are re-dividing Europe and making a mockery of the Schengen accord. And let’s be clear: Schengen is not just there to offer tourists a free ride, it is a vital asset for Europe’s economy and industry.
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A recent study for Bertelsmann Stiftung suggests that scrapping Schengen could cost the EU up to €1.4 trillion, or 10% of GDP, over a decade. In the worst case scenario, Germany would lose €235 billion and France €244 billion. A Schengen collapse would not only affect participants, it would also raise costs for countries outside the zone, including the UK. Analysts at Morgan Stanley have predicted that the resulting political turmoil would damage investment and cut cross-border trade by up to 20%, especially if coupled with Brexit.
That’s the second challenge – the British In/Out referendum in June. David Cameron has secured a deal that exempts the UK from important duties of EU membership. We believe the concessions to Britain’s arm-twisting tactics are in breach of the EU treaties and damage Social Europe. The British deal raises two fingers to basic principles like freedom of movement and non-discrimination.
The danger now is that any Member State will feel it has the right to reject commonly agreed rules, using Britain as the precedent, and creating a ‘self-service’ EU. Whether it leaves or stays in June, the UK’s concessions have weakened the Union. Already, Germany is considering cutting child benefit payments to migrant workers. And there is talk of further referendums on EU policy occurring in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Clearly, now it is down to the British people to make their decision about whether to stay within the EU or not. But while the Conservative party splits apart along fault lines which have been grating against one another for decades, the impact on Europeans elsewhere should not be underestimated. For example, the Commission’s so-called Mobility Package was due to be published last year, to tackle the ongoing problems of social dumping and unequal treatment.
Back in October, Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis identified the Mobility Package as a matter of urgency, designed to create “a deeper and fairer internal market”. But nevertheless it has been kicked into the long grass, leaving only the unsatisfactory proposal for revising the Posted Workers Directive.
Also blocked is the mid-term review of the EU’s seven-year budget, and the Union’s accession to the European Convention on Human Rights, which the British government has opposed. The ETUC strongly supports the UK remaining part of the EU, and believes this is vital for the welfare of British workers. But after the referendum, we will fight exceptions and restrictions being applied in other Member States. What Europe needs now, to restore confidence in the splintering EU project, is investment, high quality jobs and decent pay, not mean-spirited steps to rob low-paid migrants of their rights. Punishing migrant workers could provoke a backlash against British people working or claiming benefits in other Member States or, even worse, a downward spiral of opportunistic exemptions from EU rules that could rip the heart out of European unity.
So while the outlook is unsettling, trade unions need to seize the opportunity to put forward their own vision of a revitalised Social Europe. The EU is much more than a trading bloc. It is the most successful example of long-lasting, voluntary and democratic international cooperation in the world, and that’s why it continues to exert a strong attraction for neighbouring countries and populations. That’s something worth saving. But it requires urgent action, and leaders who understand that genuine cooperation with a long-term social and humanitarian perspective is better than short-term populism. Trade unions are putting forward practical responses to urgent challenges, and we are calling on EU governments to do the same. If that happens, there will be reasons to be cheerful.
Luca Visentini is general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).